There is a little phrase in the world of tea that has big significance regarding the steeping of tea. It is a poetic term. A term that embodies the uniqueness of steeping tea versus fixing, brewing, or preparing other hot beverages. This term invites one to watch, contemplate, relax, be mindful and intentional while steeping tea.
In Hot Water
The term I am referring to is called the “Agony of the Leaves”. The Chinese have used this phrase to describe the moment tea leaves are introduced into hot water. The leaves twirl, swirl, and subtly dance in the hot water. They open, and gracefully extend into the water. The water color starts to change, the leaves begin to unfurl. The tea leaves pass their properties to the water, indelibly changing the water into tea.
The more unfurled the leaves become in the hot water, the more intense in color and flavor the tea liquor becomes. This is in direct relation to the surface area of the leaf that is exposed to the hot water. The shape of the leaf can dramatically add to the poetic display of the agony of the leaves.
The Shape Of Things (Leaves)
All things considered, dried tea leaves are not uniform in shape or style across continents. A dried tea leaf can look drastically different depending on the country’s processing techniques and the desired tea to be manufactured. Even within the same country, a specifically styled tea manufactured in one location may look slightly different manufactured in another location. For example the varietal of leaf used, or how much oxidation the leaf was exposed to can affect the leaf appearance. Leaf style or shape does not necessarily denote the highest quality tea or conversely, a poor quality tea.
China and Taiwan are examples of two countries that focus on the appearance of the dried leaf as well as the flavor profile in the cup. In Japan, the leaf appearance is not always emphasized as much as it is in China and Taiwan. In parts of India the leaf appearance is not of primary importance when the tea leaves are allocated for quick brewing tea. While there are numerous unique and beautifully shaped tea leaf examples, I will be talking about just a few famous and well known teas to keep the article length reader friendly.
Let’s look at the Lung Ching (or Longjing, Dragon Well) green tea leaves. The tea is a Chinese green tea and has a very distinct leaf shape. It is produced in Zhejiang Province in the eastern coastal area of China and is one of China’s top ten most famous teas. A myth surrounding Lung Ching tea dates back to approximately 250 AD. Legend states a Taoist priest told farmers who needed rain for their fields, to pray to a dragon who lived in a nearby well. The town, the well and the purported dragon became famous. Eventually the town’s name and the tea they produced was changed to Dragon Well. People visiting the well today are told to swirl their hand in the water of the well, and an image of a dragon will appear. The style of this famous jade green leaf is of a flat, blade shape. This is created when the leaves are pan fired in a wok to stop the oxidation process. The leaves are pressed up against the sides of the wok to shape them.
Jasmine Pearls (Dragon Tears) is another Chinese shaped or styled tea. It is produced in the Fujian Province of China. Before being rolled by hand, the tea leaves are scented with jasmine flowers. The leaves are often placed in flat baskets and layered between baskets of jasmine blossoms until the floral aroma is well absorbed into the dried tea leaf. This can take hours and repeated exposure to the jasmine blossoms until the tea is perfectly scented. The tea is very absorbent of surrounding aromas and moisture, (hygroscopic), that just being placed in a room with the jasmine flowers will scent the tea. The green tea leaves are then rolled into pearl size balls. It is mesmerizing to watch the pearls unfurl in the hot water.
China is also noted for Ti Kuan Yin oolong tea. Oolong tea can also be referred to as Wu Long, Wulong tea, all due to different romanization of the word. It is produced in Fujian Province. This tea has a very unique leaf shape. It is shaped into little crinkled round (folded and rolled) spheres. Ti Kuan Yin oolong is also referred to as Tiequanyin, or Tea of the Iron Goddess of Mercy. Legend surrounding this tea is that long ago a Chinese farmer had a dream where the Iron Goddess of Mercy appeared to him in a dream. The Iron Goddess of Mercy told him in his dream, that upon waking from his dream, to go look in a cave behind her temple. The farmer awoke, went to the cave behind her temple and found a tea plant shoot. This Chinese oolong is also on the top ten list of famous Chinese teas.
Taiwan produces an oolong tea that is equally as world renowned as the Tie Kuan Yin oolong. It is the Taiwanese Tung Ting (or Dong Ding) Oolong. It is a tea whose leaves are carefully rolled and shaped into crinkled round spheres. There are other teas that are shaped into small pellet shaped flattish balls (Gunpowder green tea for example) but some oolongs are recognizable by the classic folded and rolled shape of the tea leaf. Other oolongs can be shaped into what is called a strip style of leaf. Both Tie Kuan Yin and Tung Ting oolongs are shaped into the classic rolled ball shape. Tung Ting oolong dates back to 1855 when tea plants from Wu Yi area in Fujian Province were brought back to Formosa (what Taiwan was formerly called). The oolong is made in the Natou region of Taiwan, with spring and winter plucking commandeering the highest prices for this tea.
Oolong teas are the most complicated teas to make due to the numerous rolling of the leaves before the finish firing (final firing of the tea leaves). The rolling of the leaves used to be solely conducted by people rolling tea placed in cloth sacks by hand (or even feet). There are machines today that can mimic the hand rolling of the leaves. The repeated rolling of the leaves throughout tea processing breaks down the leaf cell walls. The breaking down of the leaf cell walls develops the incredible complexity of the aroma and flavor notes of the oolong tea. Oolong teas can be steeped multiple times. Each infusion will have subtle flavor changes because of the complex flavor profile of the oolong tea.
In Japan, the dried leaf shape is more uniform in each leaf style. The Japanese use machines to clip the tea bushes, thus creating a closer sized cutting of the leaves. Hand plucking of tea leaves is cost prohibitive across a grand scale due to high labor costs, but may still occur in select gardens. Sencha is a Japanese green tea grown in full sunlight. Close to 80% of tea made in Japan is Sencha tea. It has narrow, dark green needle-like leaves that, upon closer inspection, are tightly twisted thin leaves. Machines are used to roll and shape the leaves into this shape. Unlike the Chinese Lung Ching green pan fired tea, Japanese Sencha tea is steamed to stop the oxidation process. The first spring cutting of the leaves lead to a more costly and of a higher quality Sencha than tea made with later harvested cuttings.
Matcha tea is a powdered tea that is also produced in Japan. While Matcha tea does not have a discernible tea leaf shape that can unfurl in water, it does have a unique leaf look. Matcha tea is made using shade grown tea leaves. Upon harvesting and drying of the tea leaves, the leaves pass through a specialized machine that separates the stems and veins of the leaf from the body of the leaf. The body of the leaf is then dried completely and eventually ground into a fine powder. Matcha is whisked into a frothy suspension, not infused in hot water. There are several grades of the powder used for cooking, or drinking. The highest grade of Matcha is used for Japanese tea ceremonies. Future blogs will discuss Matcha and the Japanese tea ceremony.
A cut-tear-curled leaf (CTC leaf) is primarily used in flat tea bags, can be brewed singularly, or even used in blends of chai tea. A CTC leaf consists of tiny machine cut pieces of the leaf. This form of tearing and cutting the leaves by machine is called “non-orthodox” tea production. India was the first country to use industrial sized machinery to cut, tear, and curl tea leaves. The machines were developed in the 1800’s to keep up with the increased demand for black tea in Britain. The shape and style of leave is not a consideration when using the machinery. The primary focus is that the leaf be cut, and torn. The CTC leaf is perfect for a quick and strong infusion because the ratio of surface exposure of the leaf to boiling water is very high.
Next time you steep your loose leaf tea, perhaps use a glass teapot, glass mug, or glass Gaiwan to steep your tea. Take a moment to look at the shape of your loose leaf tea before you pour hot water over the leaves. What is the shape? Are the leaves uniform in shape, and color? Are their pieces of spices, dried fruit, or nuts in the tea blend? When the hot water is poured over the leaves, what happens to the leaves? Do the leaves change in their appearance during and after the steeping? Being mindful, and intentionally present while watching the agony of the leaves takes focused work. Hopefully these questions help you engage in the art of steeping tea, and delve into the poetry that is known as the “agony of the leaves”.
Steep by steep,
About the Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!